One of the great things about film festivals is that, every now and again, you'll stumble upon a great little film made for next to no money; The Puffy Chair is just such a film. Directed by Jay Duplass and written by (and starring) his brother Mark, The Puffy Chair is a low-budget indie flick, but sharp dialogue, smart filmmaking and real characters make for a fun, quirky ride through the turmoil a road trip puts on an already shaky relationship. At the heart of the story are Josh, a 20-something musician who has given up playing with his band for the (relatively speaking) more stable life of a booking manager, and his long-time girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton). Josh (Mark Duplass) finds a purple recliner on the internet -- the puffy chair of the title -- that's just like the chair his dad had when he was a kid. He buys the chair through eBay, with the intent of taking a solitary road trip to pick the chair up and deliver it to his dad for his birthday.
Josh ends up inviting Emily to go along after they have a blow-out of a fight that's a microcosm for the flaws in their relationship. They set out for their trip, and hilarity ensues -- sort of. They end up with Josh's quirky, spaced-out younger brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), tagging along on what was supposed to be a romantically bonding road trip for two, adding to the tension. This is a dark comedy, and most of the funny bits (and there are quite a few) are nicely augmented with an undercurrent of tension, anger, feelings long unexpressed, and things long unsaid. In most relationships, the subtext is as important, if not more, than what's seen on the surface, and the Duplass boys nail this aspect of relationships pretty nearly perfectly.
The film raises some interesting questions about relationships and why people stay in them, and how people try to change the people they're in relationships with. Josh and Emily have been in this relationship for a while, they both know, more or less, who the other person is at this point -- and yet throughout the film they shift between trying to mold themselves to meet the other's expectations, or subtly trying to get the other person to better meet their own needs. We meet them at a pivotal point in their relationship, although they don't even realize it yet.
Josh is one of those charming guys who thinks he can smooth-talk his way into or out of any situation. He's like a lot of guys I've known, coasting his way through life on good looks and the ability to schmooze, the life of every party, but much more difficult to have an intimate relationship with. Emily, who probably initially found Josh's charm and sweet talk endearing, has reached the point where she wants something deeper out of their relationship, and isn't above using passively-aggressive manipulative behavior to get it. Like a lot of late 20-somethings, they've reached that crux where each of them wants something the other isn't willing or able to give, and yet the momentum of their relationship keeps them entangled; neither is completely happy with the state of things, but at the same time neither is willing to be the first to let go.
When they finally reach the fabled puffy chair, Josh finds that the chair, like his relationship with Emily, is not what it appeared to be on the surface. He bullies his way into getting the chair fixed, with hilariously disastrous results. The Puffy Chair is well-shot, filmed in a very up-close-and-personal, realistic style that puts the viewer in the position of the proverbial fly on the wall, privy to all the beautiful and ugly moments that define a relationship. We get to see Josh and Emily as it would benefit them to see themselves, with the objective view of an outside observer caught in a series of intimate moments. An excellent soundtrack augments the film as well.
Good films spark discussion, and The Puffy Chair was no exception. As I was leaving the theater, I overheard a 20-something couple discussing the film. "So ... what's our percentage?" the girl asked coyly, referencing a line from the film where Emily demands of Josh what their "percentage" -- the likelihood of their relationship going anywhere -- is. Hoo-boy. I would've liked to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Prior to The Puffy Chair, the Duplass boys did a lot of editing work and filmed a couple of award-winning shorts, and that experience shows in this film. The Puffy Chair opens soon for theatrical release; it's well worth the admission price and time spent watching, but if your own relationship is in a place similar to Josh and Emily's, it might not be the best date flick.
Want another take on the film? Check out Karina's review from last October.